How to Lead through Change

“God met me more than halfway, he freed me from my anxious fears.  Look at him; give him your warmest smile.  Never hide your feelings from him.” – Psalm 34:4-5 (MSG)

I put down my phone and felt numb.  My mom had just told me that my Dad’s heart was in a dangerous condition with limited choices for repair.  Have you ever been in a similar situation where you have felt fear by a circumstance that you did not expect?  All of us have times when we are faced with a change that overwhelms us.  Over this past month, I have talked with people whose job positions have been in a major transition, who are amid a company merger, who have had to lead in firing and hiring staff, who are amid divorce, and another facing a major illness.

As I reflect on these changes, one word comes to mind: grieving.  The grief process is the emotional journey for navigating successfully through change.  Growth only happens with change.  A successful leader is someone who can lead others well through change to a greater potential.  What changes are you having to lead through right now?

Understanding Change With the 5 Stages of Grief

As a leader, you can see clearly that you need to get people to move from point A to point B.  On the surface, the vison is quite straight forward.  However, with every change there is an undercurrent of emotions that must be processed through to get to the destination.  You will not succeed as a leader if you can only see the vision, but can’t lead the people through the emotional journey of change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is a psychiatrist whose research has become a foundation in understanding the grief process.  She identified 5 stages of grief.  To lead successfully through change, you need to be aware of and navigating through each of these.

Denial

A typical first reaction to change can be shock.  The greater the change, the stronger the level of shock.  This happened to me when I first heard about my dad’s heart condition.  I felt numb.  It was like my brain could not process it.  At this stage, people may wonder if this is really happening.

Anger

Another common reaction is anger.  When others become angry, our own adrenaline can kick in.  Don’t take this personally and then engage as though in a battle.  Keep aware of the big picture of the grieving process, and accept the anger as just part of the process.

Bargaining

With change, people feel out of control and without choice.  They can feel fearful.  To feel control, they can have thoughts referred to as bargaining.  Such as, maybe if I do this, the change won’t happen.  Or, maybe if I say this, they will change their mind.  They may blame others.  If you had only done this, this would not be happening.  Or, they may feel guilt.  If only I had done this, this wouldn’t be happening.

Depression

When a change happens, things will not be the same as they were.  With every change, there are also losses alongside the gains.  People can also feel a great sadness with what they are losing.

Acceptance

This is the stage where people integrate the loss with the acceptance of something new.  They see the past as part of the journey to the new.  They begin to embrace the new reality as the norm and see hope in the next path and vision.

Leading Through Change With the 5 Stages of Grief

When going through change, people will experience the stages of grief uniquely.  They may experience one stage quickly and another stage longer.  They can also jump in between stages.  So, don’t apply the stages as a formula, but as a state of awareness as you seek the right dynamics to listen, lead and influence.  Here are some application points.

Provide Time and Space

When you present a change, don’t think you can give the news and immediately move on to action steps.  You need to give people space to digest the information.  You may also need to repeat information later because people may not be able to process it all when first hearing it.  Be patient and give space to process.

Explain the Why and Space for Input

Explaining why a change is happening and allowing input helps to build trust.  When people feel that a change is being thrusted upon them and they have no control, it helps to understand why the change is happening.  You also need to provide a clear direction of where you are going.  This helps to clarify unknowns.  But people are also living in the present.  When you allow time for input, this gives people a sense of autonomy during the change.  You are creating a space for shared understanding.  Explain the reality of the loss, the reason and benefits.  Connect to the shared values and vision.  Allow time for questions, input and processing.

Honest Conversations

Provide space for people to process through their feelings.  You can’t stuff emotions.  They will eventually come out.  If you don’t provide open spaces for emotions to be processed, then they will come through the back door of negative spaces of gossip, sarcasm, withdrawal and destruction of culture.  As a leader, make sure you include margin time for conversations.  Keep an open door, take extra time to check-in with people, give extra time for conversations in meetings.   Lead your leadership team to keep an emotional pulse within the organization.  Proactively share concerns, confront rumblings and reach out to those saying nothing.

Change is good and is a sign of life.  In nature, no change is often an indicator of death.  Organizations that try to maintain status quo slip into decline.  Change is breath to vision and increase, but it also has an emotional toll.  However, the emotional challenge in not a negative.  It is a part of the life process.  It keeps us engaged with our people.   And when people are engaged the increase in multiplied.  So, make space for vision, change and the engagement of people.  How will you apply the application points from above?

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